The Black Death/ Ebola Smackdown

Right now, the news is full of Ebola.  Everyone–especially politicians–is in a tizzy about this dread disease, which is infecting and killing thousands in a certain area of Africa.  Should we ban air travel to West Africa?  Has the CDC done enough to protect American citizens?  How afraid should we be? do we keep kids home from school when we hear a rumor that somebody has a fever and knows somebody who might have once been to Africa?

Er.  Okay, maybe nobody’s asking that question, although a number of parents did keep kids home from school because of rumors that someone got off an airplane with a fever.  Maybe I’m the only one this happens to, but I often catch a local cold virus while traveling, and I have yet to be stopped at the airport. . .  So let’s return to the question, how afraid should we be?

How about a look at the real face of disease vectors in America, and a reminder of a threat which is still among us:

A marmot prepares for quarantine. . . er, for winter.

A marmot prepares for quarantine. . . er, for winter.

This is a marmot. It happens to be a Yellow-bellied Marmot in Rocky Mountain National Park.  In Mongolia, the bubonic plague is endemic to the local marmots.  You remember the Bubonic Plague,  AKA, the Great Mortality, AKA, the Black Death?  Bubonic Plague was likely carried on fleas spreading from the area of central Asia, and transported by rats all over Europe, both rats and fleas being pretty ubiquitous in earlier times (and still in many places).  Fleas likely also traveled in blankets, cloth and clothing, also pretty common.

When the fleas bit people, people became infected. Lots of fleas.  Lots of infections.  30 to 50% die-offs in areas where the plague ran rampant in the 14th century, for example.  You can also get it by exposure to bodily fluids of the infected. About 50% of people who contracted the plague died from it.  Later, the plague becomes Pneumonic:  it adapts to be spread by coughing or sneezing, and has a higher death rate, say, 75% (there is also a septicemic variety which killed about 90%).  Remember, all of the historical percentages are based on either eyewitness accounts (likely exaggerated), death roll analysis, or archaeological evidence, so they are a bit fuzzy, and may be lower or higher.

The Black Death lead to widespread panic, lots of praying, lots of anger and suspicion against the wrong people as many people looked for someone else to blame.  It also lead to the use of quarantine (from an Italian word, meaning separating possible infectious individuals for 40 days), which was often effective.  Eventually, the disease died out on its own–returned periodically, and died back again due, at first, to environmental factors (cold winters), and later to an increased understanding of disease vectors coupled with more effective prevention and treatment.

Okay, E. C., but that’s history.  Except in the areas where the plague remains endemic. Plague is endemic (meaning, it’s already present) in many rodent populations in the Southwest–like marmots, prairie dogs, and those adorable ground squirrels people are always feeding when they visit the western National Parks.   According to the CDC, we get an average of 7 cases per year in America. That’s more than the current number of confirmed Ebola cases in the States.    Thankfully, we’ve gotten the death rate down to around 11% with prompt treatment.  The World Health Organization says about 4000 cases of the plague are reported every year, though they suspect this number should be higher due to under-reporting in many areas.

Here’s a brief rundown on Ebola:  it has an incubation period of 21 days (which is much longer than the 2-6 days of Bubonic plague–so that’s kinda scary, but you have to be symptomatic to spread the disease), you must have contact with bodily fluids to become infected (whether from an individual, or from contaminated objects), and in Africa, it has a current death rate of about 50%, but outbreaks in the past have ranged from 25% to as much as 90%.

Yep, that’s scary–especially if you live in West Africa or work directly with patients. However, if you look at the trend over time you find that, yes, more people are being infected, but a smaller percentage of them are dying.  Just as with the death rate from the Bubonic Plague going from 50% or so, down to 11%, as we develop counter measures against the spread of the disease, better monitoring and better treatments, the disease becomes more survivable.  We still do not have a vaccine for the plague. Thousands of people live and visit areas where the plague is endemic, and avoid getting sick–and almost none of them even think about the potential for sickness.

It seems to me that, rather than spend time, money and human attention worrying about Ebola becoming an epidemic in America, we should spend some proportion of that on developing and offering effective prevention and treatment for people who *are* likely to be exposed to the disease–those in Africa and the compassionate people who work with them. That requires the travel of health professionals and scientists to study and treat the disease. It may require education and the encouragement of openness about how to handle the dead, and what foods are safe to eat because the first cases likely came from consuming bush meat, and were transmitted by customs surrounding the care of the dead.  Yes, it also requires keeping the uninfected safe, for instance, reasonable precautions about travel from affected areas, and the increased protocols introduced recently by the CDC for healthcare professionals.

Hand-wringing? Paranoia and accusations?  Stigmatization of the families of the affected after they have passed quarantine?  That’s what we don’t need. Instead of harnessing a manufactured hysteria to produce political gains, let’s harness our energy to send Ebola back into the woods and encourage it to stay there.

 

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Climbing back on the Bandwagon

In the last couple of months, I have sadly fallen off of several bandwagons:  the blogging bandwagon, the exercise bandwagon, the music practice bandwagon, lately the vegetarian diet bandwagon.  I say “sadly” because these are all things I would have liked to maintain–and because it is easier to maintain a habit than to begin one.

I have also gotten back on, possibly, the most important bandwagon of all (for me, anyhow) which is writing every day. I’ve been writing 3000 to 5000 words every weekday on my new WIP, Drakemaster (for those of you keeping track, this is my Chinese epic historical fantasy).  I was incredibly busy over the summer, between leading adventure camps and attending conventions–all very worthwhile and enjoyable things–so I didn’t get any writing done.  Now, I did not go from 0 to 5000 words the next day, I had to ramp back up to it with a few hundred, then a thousand, then two thousand (I always picture a freight train picking up speed)  I am very happy to be riding this particular bandwagon again, but still thinking about those other ones that have been left behind.

How to get back up?  The key is persistence. It’s all too easy to fall off–or, more often, to be knocked off any given habit you’re trying to maintain. You want to eat a particular way, then you get invited to a wedding, and, well, you can’t just ignore wedding cake, right?  you want to exercise daily or even every-other-day, then you get sick or injured, and you just can’t make it for a few days.  Or, worst of all, Life Happens.  Kids, family, work obligations, blackouts, car troubles–the list of reasons to stop is pretty much endless.

But you’ve gotta get back up again.  You will not reach your goals (whether fitness, career, financial or creative) without regular practice, without building and maintaining the habit of getting it done.  Someday, you just begin again.  You screw up your courage, renew your gym membership or humble yourself before your writing workshop and make a new commitment.  Yep, it’s hard to do this if you’ve let things slide.  You’re probably going to do fewer reps on the Nautilus this time around. You’re going to start with fewer words on your daily count. You’re going to be tempted by the goodies when you stop off at your favorite bookstore that happens to have a cafe. . .

Here is the thing to remember:  Life is a series of choices.  All the time, every time.  Sometimes, you don’t have the leeway to make a different choice:  you have to try your sister’s cassarole, even if it blows your diet.  Next time the choice returns to you, pick the right one.  Next time you can choose to watch tv or write–choose to write. Next time you can choose between a long lunch break, and taking a walk–choose the walk.

It’s hard to keep making the right choice–and it’s easy to think, if you’ve made the wrong choice a few times in a row, that it’s not worth the struggle to get going again.  How will you feel if you never reach your goals?  If you’re willing to just give up, go for it. If you’re going to kick yourself later, then take a step now.  Even a tiny one. Tomorrow, make a bigger one, the day after, a bigger one yet–

The more often you make the best choice, the more you can maintain those habits that will get you moving the right direction, and you’ll find yourself back on the bandwagon in no time.  For some more specific advice and ideas about self-motivating, check out the work of Luc Reid, author and instigator of The Willpower engine (and the Willpower Engine for Writers free e-book–cheap at twice the price).

I can’t guarantee that I’ll stay on the blogging bandwagon, but I can guarantee that, next time I fall off, I’ll make the choice to get back on.   See you next week!

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Review: Home for the Holidays, discovering voice

Home for the Holidays
Home for the Holidays by Randee Dawn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had the pleasure of meeting the author at a local convention last year some time, and actually won this book when I attended her reading. I highly recommend that others should go out and buy it, not least to encourage the author to write lots more!

Voice is one of the tricky bits of being a writer. Editors and agents will tell you that they look for an author with a strong “voice” and new writers will scratch their heads and try to figure out what that means and where to get one.

I am not one of those who reads to experience the flowery and self-congratulating prose that is often presented as an example of a strong voice for an author. I prefer and more subtle and vigorous approach that grows, not from the author’s desire to impress an English teach who’s probably been dead for decades, but from the author’s attempt to present a clear and striking picture of the story world that is so deeply embedded in the consciousness of character that you can’t remove the narrator’s voice without the work falling to bits.

Randee Dawn is such a writer. In each of these stories, she creates such a strong sense of the character behind the narrative that the reader must pull out at the end and be startled to find that yes, the author of that nasty little Christmas fable which provides the title, and the elegant mannered “The Folly of Miss Arbuthnot” is, in fact, the same person.

Dawn has the ability to sink into each of these works through their characters and reveal them from the inside out. That sort of confidence and investment creates a voice for the author that makes me want more. The work reminds me of Peter S. Beagle, who can so easily assume the identity of an old wine-sot sailor, then slide into the mind of a teenage Chicana. How? Teach me this magic!

If the fingerprint of the author is here on the prose, it is to point the reader in a new direction. If the author’s voice is whispering, it is to lull you into the dream that is a story.

More work by Randee Dawn is sincerely to be hoped for–hers is a voice I could listen to for a very long time.

View all my reviews

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Of Druids and Motorcycles

Today is the autumn equinox, when day and night are equal in length, at one time considered an event worthy of note.  Certain groups still observe the occasion, notably, the druids of England.  Their preferred venue is, of course, the grand-daddy of prehistoric observatories, Stonehenge.

Stonehenge, seen last Autumn.

Stonehenge, seen last Autumn.

These groups refer to themselves as Druids, and I did not realize until I read the Wall Street Journal’s coverage yesterday of a recent controversy (about which, more later) how many druid groups are active in England right now. The article mentions two (The Loyal Arthurian Warband Order, and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) along with an Archdruid of Stonehenge and Britain, and the Council of British Druid Orders. which lists sixteen member groups, and references a couple of others. These groups are seeking to reclaim a heritage of nature-based worship disrupted almost two millennia ago by the Roman invasion of England.

In general, so long as that worship does not impede the rights of others, I think people should be allowed to pursue whatever religion feels nearest their soul (or whatever conception thereof they might hold). I have a number of friends who are pagans of various ilks, but the one proclaimed druid I met locally did not leave a very positive impression as a spiritual person. Still, I was a bit surprised to find druid organizations proliferating to such a great degree. Perhaps the call to protect the environment in general has encouraged this growth, along with a feeling of connection to the land.

Most of the evidence we have for a history of druidism and the practices that might have been used comes from the Romans themselves, who were hardly an objective source (rather like citing inquisitorial documents to research the beliefs and practices of witches). During the 18th and 19th century, there was a vogue for revivals of old-time religion, and much of what is claimed on behalf of many neo-pagan religions is actually born from that enthusiasm, rather than from an earlier history of belief.

The other source we have, is, of course, the archaeological record. As you know, I’m very keen on material culture: the physical evidence of what people make and do, where they go, how they use what they had and the places they lived. Archaeologists are adding to our understanding of prehistoric Britain all the time. Both the English Heritage magazine and Smithsonian magazine included coverage this month of the recent ground-penetrating radar survey of the Stonehenge landscape.

Which brings me to the controversy mentioned earlier. It seems that Arthur Pendragon (yes, that’s his legal name) the leader of the Loyal Arthurian Warband, is aasserting the historical custom of his group to park their transportation on a dirt track near the Stonehenge circle itself when they visit or perform rituals there. In particular, Pendragon’s motorcyle. English Heritage has spent a good deal of time and money in the last few years building a new visitor’ center and car park, and getting a highway moved to better preserve the landscape, and the experience of the landscape for visitors. Pendragon accuses them of wanting the druids to use the carpark mainly so that English Heritage can get their five bob parking fee.

But if you look at the history of use, the archaeological evidence tells us that people using the circle did, in fact, park themselves (their houses and workshops) at a distance from the circle and walk there. So an argument can certainly be made that the present-day druids be willing to do the same thing. After all, it’s about the sacred landscape, right? The walk to the circle was likely part of the ritual for many years and some types of observances. But probably not for everything. Sometimes, in contemporary religious observance, you just want to pay a quick call and be on about your day. Still, as a non-religious visitor to Stonehenge, I certainly applaud the effort to restore the site to a more prehistoric impression, and allowing motorcycle parking adjacent to the circle would spoil it.

I propose that, just like many churches have special parking areas set aside for the celebrants, English Heritage should consider setting aside a few parking places for druids (possibly via a placard system, or simply by confirming plate numbers of registered celebrants) who would not have to pay the fee to visit their sacred space.

English Heritage makes money, sure. And what they do with that money is attempt to preserve the history of the nation for future generations, including the generations of druids that will hopefully follow upon this one. It seems to me that the preservation of the Stonehenge landscape is one goal that all of those groups could agree on.

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40 Years of Rule-based Magic: Celebrating the Anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons

As many of you may know, this year we celebrate the 4oth anniversary of the Dungeons and Dragons Role-playing system.  No doubt some of you readers have been players at one time or another, no doubt some of you have rolled your eyes at those who played, and maybe some of you still do.

Classic D&D roleplaying game

Classic D&D roleplaying game

My father, who introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, and at whose door may be laid much of the blame for my becoming a fantasy novelist, also introduced the family to D&D.  I quickly graduated to acting as the DM or Dungeon Master, devising wicked ways to torture my (player)characters, and the rest, as they say, is history–or maybe, historical fantasy.

Speaking of blame. . .D&D itself has been blamed for one of the facets of fantasy fiction, the idea of rule-based magic.  Through the system of game, magic-user players could gain experience, rise in levels, and gain access to new spells, which would have certain effects based on the roll of the dice. D&D created a structure in which fantasy adventures could take place and the participants had an understanding of what to expect–the sphere of possibilities in the game, similar to establishing the contract with the reader at the start of a novel.

The contract with the reader basically draws some boundaries around the imaginary realm of the book by which some things are included and others are excluded. It can include the physical contents of the world (dragons or vampires) and the intent of the author (this is a book where blood and sex are present on the page–or not).  It helps to ease the reader into that imaginary realm and allow him or her to experience the book at its best. If anything could happen–anything at all–it’s hard to know what to worry about or what to be excited about.  Any new, random event is simply the next in a catalog of miracles without cause/effect, without influence by the characters, and beyond their ability to change.

Many of the early great works of fantasy do not appear to have rules for magic–the contract with the reader suggests that magic is mysterious, numinous, rare and valuable. Characters like Gandalf and Schmendrick–radically different in their nature–have access to a great and dangerous power, but use that power so sparingly that the characters must rely upon a variety of approaches to solving their fictional problems.  The Wizard of Earthsea must learn and cultivate his magic–and discover that not all magic is to be deliberately taught.

Fast forward to the contemporary greats. One of the attractions of authors like Brandon Sanderson is his generation of a new system of magic for each of a dozen series. I’m not sure Tolkien would even have thought of magic as a “system,” yet that term is part of our writing lexicon, a thing that can be discussed as separate from worldbuilding or theme or character, elements that magic was once inextricably bound to.  And it has been said that the influence of Dungeons and Dragons is a large part of the reason this is so.

Many current authors of fantasy, like myself, were players of D&D. I like to think being a game master helped me to develop plots and to tailor events to characters (in the form of my hapless friends).  However, many of the readers of fantasy also began as players first of D&D, then of its many successor adventure games, all the way through Magic:  The Gathering, which is fundamentally *about* the rules for magic.  I’ve heard some authors and publishers sniff that gamers don’t read, which has not been my experience locally where many of my fans are both readers and gamers. Even if that were true, that doesn’t mean that readers don’t game–or that they never have.

I suspect that those experiences as gamers influence the reader’s side of the contract of a novel.  Many readers now approach a fantasy world expecting that magic has a structure which can be discerned from viewing its influence on the narrative.  Some authors make the system more explicit, as when Elisha, in my novel Elisha Barber, learns the confines of the application of magical power.

It can be argued that such constraints force the writer to be more creative, because he or she is constantly looking for startling ways to apply or defy them, and that they allow the reader greater enjoyment because they know exactly what to worry about, what to hope for, what to look for–like mystery readers seeking the clues in the race to find a killer, they enjoy trying to work through the puzzles of plot constraints.

What do you think?  If a writer, were you a player?  How has it influenced your approach to writing?  If a reader, has gaming influenced your approach to reading?

#SFWA

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Find me at Worldcon

This week, I’m in London to enjoy the annual World Science Fiction Convention (and to pay a visit to a working model of Su Sung’s astronomical clock, which happens to belong to the Museum of Science, London, but I digress).

If you’ve never been, you should know that Worldcon is a fabulous gathering of geeks from all over. Primarily, we are literary geeks, but there will also be film, video, anime, masquerade, art show, and a bunch of other nifty things.

If, on the other hand, you are already planning to attend, I’d love to meet you at my Kaffeeklatsch on Friday, August 15th at 6 pm. You will need to sign up in advance as specified.

I will also be part of a panel entitled “Doctors in Space” on Saturday from 1:30 to 3 pm, where we’ll be talking about the role of medical professionals in fantasy and science fiction.

I’ll also be riding the Eye, paying a call to Diagon Alley, then heading to the coast for some fossil hunting. Hope to see some of you there!

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Frozen: World-building on Ice

I’m starting to see a series here on the blog about my thoughts on the world-building of various new films. Today’s subject is “Frozen,” a fun and surprisingly anti-Disney-trope Disney film. Not being real big on princesses, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this one, but it undermines a lot of the stuff that Disney Princess films are supposed to be all about, mainly that the love of a man and a woman is the only thing that makes the world go ’round.
ice palace
In this case, the characters’ problems, and their solutions, come from within. It’s not the fear of some faceless mob that threatens Elsa–it is her own fear of herself. Likewise, it’s not the sacrifice of some other person that saves Anna, it is her willingness to sacrifice herself.

Okay, E. C., you liked the movie, so why are we here? We’re here for Kristoff. Kristoff, the reindeer-loving local boy, gets kinda short shrift in this film. Yes, he’s helpful in getting to the mountain to find Elsa, and yes, he brings Anna to the right people to help her out, then hurries her all the way home to her (presumed) savior. It’s a noble and a beautiful thing–though he doesn’t even get to be the one who saves the day. But there’s one aspect of Kristoff that gets neglected. He’s an ice merchant.

We first meet him as a small child at the feet of a group of men who are harvesting ice from mountain ponds to deliver to those in warmer climes. (As an aside, I am still fascinated by the idea that the same thing was done here in New England, where ice was harvested from local ponds and shipped, packed in straw to insulate it, all the way to India so the British could have cold drinks. But that’s another blog for another day.) Kristoff grows up surrounded by snow and ice, learning about it from his culture and from his labor, gaining the knowledge to work with it safely.

When he arrives at Elsa’s ice palace, he’s clearly impressed. So are we, but for the non-ice-initiated, it’s basically just a pretty (and cold) piece of architecture. At this point, Kristoff even tells us, “I know ice.” But what, exactly, does he know about it? We already know that his livelihood is in the tank–he’s an ice merchant during an eternal winter–so the conflict in the film is personal. From a narrative perspective, that’s great. It raises the stakes and gives him a personal investment in the solution, and it gives the viewer a rooting interest in him. Woo-hoo.

Unfortunately, that’s the last we ever hear of Kristoff’s ice-knowledge. Given the advertising images of the film which clearly suggest a relationship between Kristoff (ice merchant!) and Elsa (ice maker!) I suspect that his attachment to ice is there mainly as a red herring to throw the viewer off about where the story is going, and who will turn out to be a hero in the end.

Perhaps they wanted to throw in that little twist, making us believe that Kristoff and Elsa were perfect for each other until we find out the truth, but I am still a bit disappointed that Kristoff’s skill with ice is never plot-relevant. They’re living, for a while, in a world dominated by ice, yet he never comes through with any special insight. A way to attack the ice and snow beast? A safe route across the broken ice flows? A glimpse into the ice of Anna’s heart that helps him know what to do? Given how tightly crafted the rest of the film is (check out the timing of Hans’ glove removal) I wish they had taken just a little more time to bring out Kristoff’s knowledge of this world. That would have been (sorry, can’t help it) totally cool.

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